Derick Plazaola: Grand Tour 2022

Photo by Derick Plazaola / CC by 4.0
“Congelato, ma Andando Avanti” by Derick Plazaola
Introduction: The Grand Tour Redux

My first trip to Europe, and to Italy of all the locations I could’ve selected. I knew that once I finalized the process of study abroad there would be no going back. I would have to leave behind everything and everyone back home and to immerse myself into a completely different life for an entire month – a thought that seemed to ever so scary and extremely stressful to comprehend in the days approaching the beginning of the program. However, I realized that going out of this comfort zone that I have enveloped myself my entire life – this bubble per se – would expose my perspective to horizons that I never have seen or even could comprehend without pushing myself physically, mentally, and emotionally to see them.

After the conclusion of this trip, I have come to the realization that beyond the wall of comfort lied one of the best experiences that any human could undergo and, in the shoes of a 21 year-old male from Miami, an opportunity to gain a level of appreciation for the materialistic items that I own but don’t appreciate on an everyday basis. Above all, the opportunity to study abroad allowed me to disconnect entirely from everything in Miami and to assimilate into an environment that was uncharted to me. This is why I viewed my Grand Tour experience as a time period where I was frozen, yet continually moving forward – “Congelato, ma Andando Avanti”. The time I spent in each of this cities allowed me to step into the shoes of those who have been there before me but also allowed me to create a pause – a freeze – on the life I have always experienced when at home in Miami, and to instead move forward with each day in Italy; living in the moment and appreciating every thing and interaction – big and small – was what would ultimately make this trek a core memory that will remain unforgotten as I resume, as I unfreeze, my life back home.

Structure of the Grand Tour

In order to showcase the experiences and events which I underwent while in Italy, I will first provide a more general picture of the feelings and thoughts I had while in each city or region that we lived in. Then, I will dive into the reflections that I specifically had for each location or area within that city that we were assigned beforehand and attempt to undertake a deeper analysis of the significance of these areas to, both, those who lived there eras before our arrival and to those who live there now and can see these locations on a daily basis.

With each of these locations, there were specific key emotions or qualities that I overwhelmingly felt in the moment while exploring each and every one of these areas. That being said with each step I took, I had to pause and think to myself if those hundreds of years before me or even if the others around me perhaps felt the same qualities or emotions when they immersed themselves into these locations. Perhaps they also saw these qualities as being tied to these locations or perhaps not. However, to me it was important that my mind had been exposed to the sensations that seemed to almost envelop one in the places which I have now explored.

Ancient Rome, Roma: Greatness
Photos and Editing by Derick Plazaola / CC by 4.0

Greatness. That was the overwhelming quality that I felt when viewing the entirety of this massive city. This would exceed in unimaginable amounts when I walked not only through the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, but also when I took a significant amount of time to take in every single building, structure, and key landmark tied to what was known as “Ancient Rome”. There was not a singular point in each of my days when I would wake up and see something that was apart of the ancient part of the city; it’s almost as if this section of the city had to make itself known on a daily basis. Whether it’d be through the continual viewing of the expression “SPQR” – the Senatus Populusque Romanus or “the Roman Senate and People” – on various streets and everyday items or through the passing of our study abroad group through the city’s various Aurelian walls or “portas”, this section of the city was continually letting its presence be known in such a proud manner. This is to great amounts of avail however as one has to simply respect the fact that these structures were recognized to be apart of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, empire to exist in the world.

I am a heavy believer in the idea that the authenticity of locations can only be truly experienced when one is there in person, rather than through the viewing of a picture or video. This was confirmed in its entirety when I had the opportunity to walk through these locations of Ancient Rome that were proudly idolized by the city’s people. There were times that I forgot that Rome was just a city. I would constantly view Rome as a time machine, a portal to the past if you will. A portal that allowed you to truly experience what Ancient Roma was truly like.

It was surreal. That feeling of surreal overtook me as I realized that I was among the first among thousands, for the day, to be in the middle of the Colosseo. The ground where my feet stood planted had been a breeding ground for endless violence – a violence that was viewed as entertainment of the highest quality for Roman citizens and nobility alike. It was almost as if you could feel that you were being transported in time and could hear the sounds and visualize the sights of what would surround you as stood motionless in the middle of the Flavian Amphitheater.

Once you finally wake up from viewing into the past, you come to the unbelievable realization that these remnants of the olden eras has managed to successfully remain standing ever-so proudly after so much time. This old civilization has now blended in successfully with the new city and thus a new, complete Roma has been formed. The geographical point where I overwhelmingly felt this the most was when I had the opportunity to stand atop the Vittorio Emanuele II national monument at the heart of Rome, a building commonly recognized as Rome’s “Wedding Cake” due to its unique architectural style. Had it not been for my curiosity to find the secret elevator that takes you to the top of this structure, I would not see the jaw-dropping sight that I did. When viewing towards the Colosseo, you would see the entirety of Ancient Rome all on that one side. When looking towards the other side, you see Central Rome filled with its newer buildings, but still coating some more ancient structures – such could be seen with the clear dome of the Pantheon peering through the rooftops. And yet right next to where I was standing were the “Quadriga della Libertà” and the “Quadriga dell’Unità” – the chariots of Liberty and Unity respectively. I couldn’t help but picture these chariot statues as almost serving as the connecting point, the midway marker, between Ancient and Modern Rome. Unity and Liberty combining together to express an overwhelming feeling of greatness.

Piazzale Michelangelo & Oltrarno, Firenze: Timelessness
Photos and Editing by Derick Plazaola / CC by 4.0

Timeless. To not change in quality even as insurmountable amounts of time pass by. That is the best way I can describe my experience when living in Florence. That being said, walking down the streets of Florence was of course one of the better ways to be able to experience this authentic feeling of timelessness as you would pass by and see so many architectural pieces along with art and sculptures or statues that you would find yourself admiring for quite some time. However, I found that the best way to truly appreciate the timeless nature of Florence was to push yourself continually up and up the steps of Piazzale Michelangelo until you finally reach the top. It is not until you are able to reach this plaza that you are presented with an unmatched view of Florence, allowing you to intake everything. It is here where you can see not only the unmatched authenticity of Florence, but just truly timeless the architecture of the city is in comparison to some of the locations in Italy. For example, I found myself lost in viewing everything from the side of the Ponte Vecchio all the way to that of the buildings in close distance to the Santa Maria Cathedral and Brunelleschi’s Dome. It is nothing short of entrancing as you could spend so much time in this little areas simply mesmerized not only by the magnificent view in front of you, but also by the welcoming ambience of Piazzale Michelangelo with its many people, some of which were playing instruments to set the tone for what this relaxing location can offer.

When in Oltrarno, I felt as if I was still apart of Florence and not apart of it at the same time. To get to Oltrarno, it even felt entirely unique as I had to cross the Ponte Vecchio to get the outskirts and then walked further into the area through the streets filled with colorful pastel-colored buildings and past the various streets with unique dining locations and shops. To come then face to face with structures such as the Pitti Palace and the Basilica of Santo Spirito emitted this resonating feeling of authenticity and timelessness yet again. I found that regardless of wherever I found myself within Florence, I could easily picture people hundreds of years before me walking down the same pathways and entering all these locations just like myself and others were doing so now.

I feel like being able to live a week in Florence and having the opportunity to visit all the locations we did was an experience that was entirely unique in its own regard compared to the things done in other cities. I feel like there was a noticeable assimilation into the life of a Florentine from the Renaissance with the activities that we were able to do and the locations we were able to visit. Whereas before, nobles and higher class people in the Renaissance were able to envelop themselves in these exclusive activities, now a group of students from Miami were able to do the same thing hundreds of years later all while still retaining the same level of authenticity as hundreds of years before. It only just goes to show just how timeless Florence truly is.

Corniglia, Cinque Terre: Serenity
Photos and editing by Derick Plazaola / CC by 4.0

Serenity. To reach the state of being peaceful and untroubled is a journey that is truly difficult and, at times, feels like an impossibility. I think that for the first time in a long time, I felt true serenity when I was in Cinque Terre. It was here in this part of Italy that three things existed; myself, the Earth I was standing on, and the calmness which the nearby Ligurian coast provided. It was an overwhelming sensation of the feeling that I could truly disconnect from all my previous problems and issues that continually clouded my mind and to instead be one with the environment around me. I cannot even replicate the feeling of being able to walk to the end of these villages and to peer out into the endless coast that faced me as I felt comforted by the beauty that surrounded me. I believe it will be hard to replicate or to even come close to the feeling of peace that Cinque Terre provided to me. Regardless of the elevation where I was standing, I still always felt so comforted by the sights that one could encounter here.

Corniglia in particular was where I found myself having spent the most time simply because of the fact that all the little things that were here complimented off of each other so well and that really resonated with me. To start off, the intricacy and beauty of the interior of the church of San Pietro here was a church that was highly memorable for me among all five of the villages of Cinque Terre. The ceiling being so well lit in particular was a sight that immediately seemed to have a firm grasp over my attention span when inside of it. Exiting out the church, I loved the opportunity of being able to enter all of the small shops and local businesses within Corniglia as I found myself always having a positive interaction at the end of it all, explaining where I was from and the things I loved about Cinque Terre. I think the fact that I felt so at peace from the environment in Cinque Terre greatly helped towards helping me feel so welcomed by the village and its people. Finally, being able to descend all the way from the top of Corniglia – where I could still oversee the sea along with the two villages to the left of Corniglia and the two to the right – to the bottom where the cliff diving was an experience in itself. I personally was too cowardly to cliff dive this first time but I was not too worried as I knew I would do it the next time I came her – something that may prove to be sooner than I expect as I fell in love with here.

The feeling of being able to be such at peace while here in Cinque Terre is a feeling that I don’t remember finding anywhere else before I came here. I know that at some point in my future life, I will return here so I can experience this feeling of serenity once again. I would do anything to go back in time to experience that feeling for the same for the first time again.

Santa Croce, Venezia: Buoyancy
Photos and editing by Derick Plazaola / CC by 4.0

Buoyancy. While it may be defined as the ability for something to quite literally float on water, buoyancy can also signify a significantly optimistic and cheerful nature and these are both attributes that can be tied to the city of Venice. Although our study abroad group was only there for a handful of nights, I was still able to clearly see the cheerful side of this city – something that I found to be the most clear at nighttime when crowds of people could come together to enjoy a shared feeling of enjoyment and togetherness. If I was here during Venezia’s annual “Carnival” festival, I definitely would be overtaken with the feelings of buoyancy that I described as the overwhelming amount of celebration could easily envelop someone and lure them in to become apart of the shared feelings of joy. Such a feeling can only go hand and hand with the city “married to the sea” as it fits the overall sentiment felt by immersing oneself into the life of a Venetian. Even having the opportunity to stand alongside the canals of the city and to see the gondolas pass by provides a feeling of enjoyment and satisfaction that is hard to feel elsewhere in Italy simply because the geographical composition of Venice is so vastly different from the rest.

Specifically when in Santa Croce, I felt this feeling of buoyancy when in the Giardini Papadopoli, one of the bigger public gardens within Venice. This area along with the nearby constitution bridge felt like the perfect hotspot where Italians could come to perform their passeggiata naturally as I would see large families enjoying time in this garden in the midday. This place was also a source of calmness however as I found myself being able to naturally rest without concern after a long day’s worth of walking and the hot sun. Thus, Giardini Papadopoli would hold a place as being a retreat from the usual alleyways and seaside views of Venezia. In addition to the garden, I was also able to experience the sight of two unique churches in the area of Santa Croce in the form of the Church of Saint Nicolò of Tolentino and the Church of San Rocco, both of which held spectacular pieces of catholic art that could not be found elsewhere. Santa Croce did offer a personally interesting, yet funny experience in the form of the Leonardo da Vinci museum; it was hilarious to be presented with clear copies of paintings like the “Annunciation” being presented to me when I had already seen the real thing at the Uffizi in Firenze.

From the time I spent in Venezia and its neighboring islands, I walked away from this city understanding very clearly just how overwhelming buoyant this city was. However, it was a feeling that sat very well with me and I saw myself as being very open to visiting this unique city again.


The Grand Tour Redux was an opportunity that I can only describe as being once in a lifetime. My perspective on my current lifestyle has been changed entirely from being able to immerse myself into the cultures and everyday customs of an Italian, regardless of whichever city I was situated in that day. To stay in the four locations we did and to undergo the respective sentiments, feelings, and qualities of Roman greatness, Florentine timelessness, Cinque Terre’s serenity, and Venetian buoyancy is an experience that will forever situate itself as being among the best experiences of my lifetime.

The Grand Tour was ultimately an opportunity for me to freeze my life back in Miami and to instead begin anew in Italy, moving forward with entirely different and unique experiences with each and every day. I do not regret a second of it and would gladly go back in time to do it again from start to finish.

Thank you for taking the time to read my Grand Tour Redux. Perhaps now you will also consider taking a freeze on your personal life at some point and spending a month in Italy. It is an experience that will only leave craving more.

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